Thornton Dial In The NYTFriday, February 18, 2011
The NYT ran an article yesterday about the Thornton Dial exhibit
THORNTON DIAL has never been one for talking much about his artwork. Ask him what inspires his monumental assemblages, made from twisted metal, tree branches, cloth, plastic toys, animal bones and all manner of found materials, and he is likely to respond tersely, as he did while showing me around his studio here one bone-chilling day last month.
Because Mr. Dial is self-taught and illiterate, he has generally been classified as a folk or outsider artist. But that pigeonhole has long rankled his admirers, because his work’s look, ambition, and obvious intellectual reach hew so closely to that of many other modern and contemporary masters, from Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg to Jean-Michel Basquiat. “If anybody else had created a major opus of this scope,” said Joanne Cubbs, an adjunct curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, “he or she would be recognized as a major force in the art world. Instead Dial struggles at the margins.”
But his marginalization may not last much longer. Mr. Dial’s first career retrospective, “ Hard Truth,” opens at the museum in Indianapolis on Friday. And on March 19 the Andrew Edlin Gallery in Chelsea will open Mr. Dial’s first solo gallery show in New York in 11 years. “This feels like the moment when the cultural world is ready to understand Mr. Dial and perhaps to embrace him,” said Ms. Cubbs, who organized the museum survey.
Certainly Mr. Dial has one of the more amazing art historical biographies on record. Although he had little formal schooling, he developed an intimate acquaintance with postmodernist art-making materials early in life.
Born in 1928 in a cornfield in the tiny rural hamlet Emelle, Ala., and raised by his great-grandmother, Mr. Dial went to work as soon as he could walk, harvesting sweet potatoes and corn, and gathering twigs and “the stuff my great-grandmother needed to make fire,” he said. After her death Mr. Dial and his younger half brother went to live with another relative in Bessemer, a small industrial town, where he hauled ice, poured concrete, raised cattle, did carpentry and laid bricks, among other things, until he found employment as a metalworker at the local Pullman-Standard boxcar factory. He worked there on and off until it closed in 1981.
Mr. Dial was so prolific, he added, that his wife often made the boys tidy up by burying his old work in the yard. (Mr. Dial has said in the past that he sometimes hid his work himself because he feared the attention it might attract during the Jim Crow years.)
Life changed dramatically for Mr. Dial in the late ‘80s, when he was discovered by William Arnett, a wealthy white Atlanta collector who was obsessively scouring the South for unheralded African-American work.
For Mr. Dial the meeting was transformative. “He didn’t have to bury stuff anymore,” his son said, “because Mr. Arnett would give him money for things, and Daddy was kind of fascinated. There was a point where he said, ‘Ya’ll been laughing at me, but look at what the man just paid me for doing this.’ ”
(Dear New York Times: I love you but seriously, the word is a contraction of the words "you" and "all", thus the apostrophe goes after the letter "y". That gives us the word y'all. Thank you.)
Mr. Arnett gave him a monthly stipend in exchange for right of first refusal, which allowed Mr. Dial to make art full time. Mr. Arnett visited frequently, and introduced Mr. Dial to curators and other collectors, including Jane Fonda, who remains a major supporter. He also set the wheels in motion for Mr. Dial’s first museum exhibition, “Image of the Tiger.” Organized by the critic Thomas McEvilley, it opened at two New York institutions, the Museum of American Folk Art and the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in November 1993. The show seemed poised “to break down the border between outside and inside,” Mr. McEvilley said. Critically it was successful: “He has a genuine talent that he brandishes fearlessly,” Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times. But soon after the opening “60 Minutes” ran a segment that suggested Mr. Arnett was exploiting the folk artists whose work he had championed, particularly Mr. Dial. Suddenly “my show died on the vine,” Mr. McEvilley said. And so did several other major exhibitions of Mr. Dial’s art in the works.
(Mr. Dial, who remains close to Mr. Arnett, memorialized the debacle with the 2003 self-portrait assemblage “Strange Fruit: Channel 42”: it involves an eyeless scarecrow-like creature wearing a bloody tie strung up from a television antenna.) Yet the event had one positive effect on Mr. Dial, Ms. Cubbs said: “It made him re-evaluate what the relationship would be between his art and its audience, and his work became more complex and powerful.”
The Times has a nice slideshow here.
BTW, I got an email from Andrew Edlin a couple of weeks ago about the gallery putting on a new show for Frank Calloway (the gentleman from Tuscaloosa), through March 12. Pics from Frank's work at the AVAM here. The Thornton Dial show at Andrew's gallery begins March 19.